Luther and the Reformation (1) – The Ninety-Five Theses

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This year being the 500th anniversary of the great Reformation (1517-2017) – its origin notably marked by Martin Luther’s posting of his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517 – we intend to do a series of posts throughout the year on some of the major works of Luther.

luther-theses-1And what better place to start than the Ninety-Five Theses themselves. For today, we simply refer you, first of all, to a few of them as found at the link above (and in many other places), prefaced by Luther’s purpose in posting them.

Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

I have selected these points of debate (theses) in particular:

 1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.

3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.

4. The penalty of sin remains as long as the hatred of self (that is, true inner repentance), namely till our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

27. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.

28. It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.

32. Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.

33. Men must especially be on guard against those who say that the pope’s pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to him.

34. For the graces of indulgences are concerned only with the penalties of sacramental satisfaction established by man.

35. They who teach that contrition is not necessary on the part of those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessional privileges preach unchristian doctrine.

36. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.

37. Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.

 

Secondly, we may point you to B.B. Warfield’s fine essay, “The Ninety-Five Theses in Their Theological Significance” (found in free digital form at Monergism.com). Below is a paragraph found in the early part of that work describing the significance of Luther’s theses:

The significance of the Theses as a Reformation act emerges thus in this: that they are a bold, an astonishingly bold, and a powerful, an astonishingly powerful, assertion of the evangelical doctrine of salvation, embodied in a searching, well-compacted, and thoroughly wrought-out refutation of the sacerdotal conception, as the underlying foundation on which the edifice of the indulgence traffic was raised. This is what Walther Köhler means when he declares that we must recognize this as the fundamental idea of Luther’s Theses: “the emancipation of the believer from the tutelage of the ecclesiastical institute”; and adds, “Thus God advances for him into the foreground; He alone is Lord of death and life; and to the Church falls the modest role of agent of God on earth – only there and nowhere else.” “The most far-reaching consequences flowed from this,” he continues; “Luther smote the Pope on his crown and simply obliterated his high pretensions with reference to the salvation of souls in this world and the next, and in their place set God and the soul in a personal communion which in its whole intercourse bears the stamp of interiorness and spirituality.” Julius Köstlin puts the whole matter with his accustomed clearness and balance – though with a little wider reference than the Theses themselves – when he describes the advance in Luther’s testimony marked by the indulgence controversy thus: “As he had up to this time proclaimed salvation in Christ through faith, in opposition to all human merit, so he now proclaims it also in opposition to an external human ecclesiasticism and priesthood, whose acts are represented as conditioning the imparting of salvation itself, and as in and of themselves, even without faith, effecting salvation for those in whose interests they are performed.

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